Thu, Aug 01, 2013 - Page 8 News List


Learning to voice opinions

I am worried about the educational system in Taiwan.

I have been teaching English in Taiwan for 10 years now. Until recently I was an assistant professor at a university in Greater Taichung. I am concerned about the way students are learning in Taiwan. Perhaps I should say I am concerned about the way students are not learning in Taiwan.

When I first came to Taiwan I taught in a cram school. I was surprised that students could not express themselves well when they were asked to give their opinion about a movie or about a celebrity they liked. If I asked a student why they liked the movie or why they liked the celebrity, they could not say anything beyond “It was good!” or “He/she is cool!” I asked other teachers in the school why this was and they told me that they would even have trouble expressing themselves in Chinese, because they are not accustomed to having a teacher ask them their opinion.

That was more than nine years ago. More recently, I was teaching university students and I was trying to get students to express their opinions about the recent incident involving a Taiwanese fisherman shot by Philippine Coast Guard personnel. To my surprise, students complained about this topic being introduced in class and I got in trouble with the school for bringing it up.

When I was an elementary-school student in Canada, one of the activities we had was to read the newspaper and tell the class the next day what was happening in the world. It was a variation of “Show and Tell,” in that we were to cut out an article from the newspaper, bring it to class and talk about it. I’ve been told that students in Taiwan do not do these sorts of activities in elementary school and I have found that most students I have taught at the university level still find it difficult to get up in front of a class and express themselves, even in Chinese. Indeed, most students find it difficult to even speak up loudly enough to be heard by the whole class.

For weeks I was questioned by committees at the university regarding my “behavior.” I was eventually told that teachers are not to bring up politics in class. The justification was that the students were only “children.” Yet in Canada students were encouraged to express opinions about current events while they were still in elementary school.

I can understand why high-school students would not have opportunities to express themselves in class: Most of the final year of high school is devoted to preparing for university entrance exams. These exams are multiple choice and do not ask students for their opinions.

However, at the university level students are presumably being prepared for life and work. When students graduate from university they are old enough to vote. How sad is it that they are never encouraged to develop opinions of their own?

Of course, my experience has mostly been with students who graduated from vocational high schools. Students who attended better high schools and went on to study at better universities would obviously be more interested in learning and would not have a problem with teachers who would actually try to teach them.

Even if better universities have different policies that actually allow teachers to teach, there is still the problem of most students in Taiwan, including university graduates, being ill-prepared to participate in Taiwan’s democracy as informed citizens.

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